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Artificial Intelligence Is No Substitute For Wisdom

By Jon Jordan

In the world of technology, there is nothing new under the sun. That is not to say there is no innovation in technology, but rather that when a new technology emerges, the same old cycle occurs.

The Next Big Thing is announced, and is greeted with heightened expectations from all sides. Whether the reaction is This changes everything or We are all doomed, expectations of the new technology’s significance are almost universally overstated.

This leads to part two of the cycle: the letdown. It turns out this new technology doesn’t change everything, and it has not destroyed us all. The general population moves on. Either the technology becomes so ubiquitous that its presence is hardly noticed, or it becomes so obsolete that nobody cares.

But there is one final step to the cycle. It is perhaps the most dangerous step, in large part because most people have moved on. Part three of the cycle is the arrival of unintended consequences. The Next Big Thing, designed to improve our lives harms more than it helps. Nuclear technology led to the rise of both nuclear weapons and microwavable bacon. Put mildly, both are detrimental to human flourishing.

ChatGPT is, in this sense, the Next Big Thing. We are in the middle of the first cycle, though some among us have already moved on to the second.

Headlines about this new iteration of artificial intelligence have ranged from “Goodbye, Homework” and “ChatGPT Will End High School English” to “Will ChatGPT Make Lawyers Obsolete? (Hint: Be Afraid).” The more nuanced among us are either ignoring the phenomenon entirely, or pointing out that it does some things surprisingly well. Whether it does what it tries to do is one question; whether we should try to use it, and for what, are the more important questions.

I serve as a priest in a sacramental church and headmaster of a school in the classical tradition. Both of these roles mean my interest is piqued when our culture is attracted to virtual replacements for otherwise human activity.

Tools like ChatGPT do not negate the need for a proper education in the humanities; they emphasize the need for a more humane approach to teaching and learning. These new tools can do a lot, but they cannot replace the very human act of teaching and preaching.

On the contrary, tools like this highlight a deeper problem in our increasingly virtual age. Our increased appetite for automation points to a detrimental consequence for those who care about both formation and thinking: we have an increasing preference for transmitting and consuming information rather than wisdom.

In both the world of education and of the church, the rise of artificial intelligence highlights the need for a recovery of wisdom, not information, as a primary aim of intellectual formation. Information can be communicated by a computer; wisdom must be transmitted from one human to another.

If an English class and the essays it assigns are geared toward teaching students how to convey information, then artificial intelligence will succeed in helping students cheat more easily. If, instead, an essay asks students to place themselves within a narrative in order to glean from the virtues or vices of a particular character, there is little that disembodied lines of code can do to help with this very human task.

Similarly, if a preacher is already using the Sunday sermon simply to inform congregants or call them to a specific action or cause, artificial intelligence could easily be used to form the sermon. The fact that some AI sermons are being touted as an improvement to preaching says far more about the state of mainline Protestant preaching today than it does the merits of artificial intelligence.

If, instead, sermon preparation is meant to be a prayerful reading of the Scriptures with a particular community of fellow pilgrims in mind, there is little that an anonymous bot can do to help with this very human task.

Artificial intelligence can make an already misguided approach to formation easier on both the teacher and the learner. It can serve as a shortcut to consuming and creating information. But by taking another step toward virtual automation, it also further reduces the possibility of learning wisdom from another human.

What is the answer to the problems highlighted by tools like ChatGPT? What can we do to pursue wisdom ourselves, and to guide others along the way? These questions are too important to be answered by one person.

But I do suspect that recovering the pursuit of wisdom over information will coincide with rediscovering the beauty of the Incarnation, in which an embodied human does something only a human can do for the sake of other humans.

Here is a proposed starting point for this sort of recovery: aim, when possible, for the most human approach to your daily tasks. If, like me, your daily tasks involve writing in any capacity, you could use ChatGPT and tools like it to complete your work. But these are pale parodies of the human work we should be doing. We are all better off when most of us try to approach our tasks in the most human of ways.

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